By Qui Nguyen. Directed by Nathania Bernabe and Mayumi Yoshida. An Affair of Honor production. At the Nest (Studio 1398) on Friday, November 23. Continues until December 2.
The virtuosity on display in this show is dazzling; the script is a bloated mess. The night is long, but it’s lively.
Soul Samurai, by New York playwright Qui Nguyen, is a mashup in both form and content. It’s a lesbian love story, a samurai epic, and a postapocalyptic urban vampire fable told through a mix of live action, film, and animation, as Dewdrop and her sidekick, Cert, wage war on the Longtooths, a gang of vampires who have taken over Brooklyn and killed Dewdrop’s girlfriend, Sally December. Early on, Dewdrop greets the audience directly—“Moshi moshi, motherfuckers”—and tells us about her revenge mission. This is followed, graphic-novel-style, by a long series of flashbacks that fill in the details of the heroes and villains’ pasts.
From the perspective of conventional narrative, Nguyen’s script is frustrating: the flashbacks and sidebars keep reestablishing details we already know without shedding new light on the plot. But it’s easy to understand the play’s appeal to Vancouver theatre producers Affair of Honor, a fight- and movement-based company that seeks to showcase diversity, strong female leads, and emerging artists. All laudable goals, and Soul Samurai vigorously ticks all those boxes.
The combat scenes are expertly choreographed by Nathania Bernabe, who also plays Dewdrop, and Jackie T. Hanlin, who plays Sally. As actors, they both create nuanced, sympathetic characterizations, and their resources as fight directors seem limitless. One of the most arresting movement sequences is a fan dance reinvented as a display of gang aggression; it’s fantastic. The company repeatedly displays a jaw-dropping level of physical skill. But if you can’t stomach watching people kick, punch, stab, and bite each other for a couple of hours, consider this your warning.
Under Bernabe and Mayumi Yoshida’s direction, there are other standout performances in this solid ensemble. Lou Ticzon provides comic relief as wannabe samurai Cert, with his hip-hop pretensions and impeccable timing. Playing Dewdrop’s martial-arts instructor, Master Leroy, Maxwell Yip has a magnetic stillness. And Romuald Hivert displays his versatility, playing both the fanged and feral Boss 2K and his mild-mannered pre-vampire counterpart, Marcus Moon.
We meet Marcus mostly in Nach Dudsdeemaytha’s film sequences, some of the highest-quality film work I’ve seen in a theatre production, which are often integrated with the live action. Chad Cuthbertson’s animation sequence late in the play is also exceptional.
The scope of ambition—and achievement—in this production is off the charts. I look forward to seeing what this company can do with a tighter story.